Fuel Favorites of 2007
For each year so far that I've been dabbling in this music-blog-writing hobby, there seems to be a greater proliferation of choices for my ears to make. It seems like more artists are making their voices heard, more albums getting out there in one form or another, more people being turned on to music outside the mainstream 35 songs you hear on the radio.
This is good news for ears, hearts, and souls, and bad news for listmakers.
After much struggling, I've picked out ten albums that I'm happy with being my favorites from 2007; add all of these to your collections and be happy too. There were some very good albums that I left off this year (I am sure you will point them out to me in the comments) but these 10 are the ones that connected with me uniquely and viscerally. And they're listed in alphabetical order because even numerically ranking them defeated me.
If you would like to hear me talk more about these albums, and discuss my perspective as a music blogger in the digital music world in 2007, please tune in to NPR's World Cafe on January 1st. I'll be doing a piece with David Dye, Tom Moon from NPR and Marco Werman from BBC's "The World" program.
And yes . . . this is my poker face. I'm doing little freakout backflips on the inside.
TEN FUEL FAVORITES OF 2007
BECAUSE OF THE TIMES
Kings of Leon
Folks complain that this album isn't as loose and rough and gut-punch raw as earlier KOL efforts, and they're right. This album is bigger and hazier and more anthemic, but I find myself craving the riffs, the melody, the scowly drawl of the lyrics, and the unabashed rock. I agree with the fantastic Daytrotter piece that called this one "a sneaker" (as in it sneaks up on you, not a shoe). I like that KOL are experimenting with their sound and pushing the edges. Plus, they absolutely have the best live show I saw (twice) this year, all caged energy, confident strut and rock and roll.
Fans - Kings of Leon
This is the richest album in my top ten this year, in that the songs seep under your skin and percolate slowly. As we discussed, so much of this is 4am music; the late-night special, flawed but transcendent. Woven through songs that pulse restlessly with thumping drums, elegiac strings and evocative piano melodies, the lyrics here destroy me. Absolutely. They lament "another uninnocent, elegant fall into the unmagnificent lives of adults," then ruefully note that "we’re so disarming darling, everything we did believe is diving diving diving diving off the balcony / Tired and wired we ruin too easy, sleep in our clothes and wait for winter to leave." The purity of elemental urges and gorgeous expression makes me wants to live inside the stories of this album.
Fake Empire - The National
The Star Spangles
Here to save the rock and roll crown from the hands of slicker entries this year, The Star Spangles from New York are filthy and gritty and raw, making pub-chant punk with strong melodies. Full of heart, they are the real deal so don't mess with their work ethic. In addition to playing roughly 3,528 fiery live shows this year, they're not above doing things like playing a recent show at the Jesse Malin/Ryan Adams hangout Niagara in NYC wearing only a trenchcoat and a fedora (all the better to rock with less friction, I guess). Listen to this vibrant album loud, and feel the ebullient crush of youth.
Take Care of Us - The Star Spangles
The owner of some trusted ears remarked upon first hearing this Philly band that "this is what Wilco might sound like if they just let their popness run rampant." Fighting Trees is a shimmering, delicious, intelligent album full of pop goodness but not too sugary-sweet. It's got the jangle and the thump, the three-part harmonies and the cohesive storyline lyrics that sweep me off to somewhere else; they weave a dream-sequence where you are floating above yourself, watching the actions below with a distanced eye. Loosely based around the 1964 short story "The Swimmer," both the grad-school premise and the resulting album deserve massive props.
[stream here, buy CD at shows, out via Mad Dragon in early 2008]
Heaven - The Swimmers
GOOD AND RECKLESS AND TRUE
The Alternate Routes
In a year when I was really hoping for a grand, rootsy, golden album from Ryan Adams that never materialized for me, The Alternate Routes warmed the speakers of my car all summer long with their expansive, windows-down, wholeheartedly good brand of alt-country rock. One of my favorite lyrical pictures all year comes from these opening notes: "I've been wasting my days good and reckless and true, I have danced in the dark at the edge of the water, swingin my hips at the black and the blue..." The songwriting is solid and incisive, highlighted by the aching tenor of lead singer Tim Warren -- and speaking of Ryan Adams, current Cardinals drummer Brad Pemberton pitches in on the skins here as well. Although the album swings effortlessly from rollicking to pensive, the common thread that I find appealing is the earnest commitment to simply playing their blessed hearts out.
Ordinary - The Alternate Routes
THE HISTORICAL CONQUESTS OF JOSH RITTER
A pal recently asked me who I thought the best modern-day songwriter was. At the time it was 2am, and I mumbled something about how I thought Josh Ritter was pretty dang incredible. Upon coherent reflection, I take that back; I think Josh absolutely may be the best songwriter of our generation that I've heard. His penetrating lyrics consistently blow me away, and the rock influences of his new album ramp up the folk sounds I've loved in the past into something that definitely hits harder and leaves me all itchy and excited-like. You must see him live in 2008, the new material is amazing in concert. As Josh weaves his intricate, literate songs on stage, he overflows with each lyric as if he were birthing every line afresh for the first time. That same refreshing joy is palpable on this album, and we are grateful for it.
To The Dogs or Whoever - Josh Ritter
I CAN'T GO ON, I'LL GO ON
The Broken West
When I first heard this new Merge Records signing last January, my post title was "I want to listen to The Broken West all weekend long, maybe until my eardrums crystallize into sugar." That pretty much sums up how vividly I crave the sounds on this disc. Catchy hooks and fuzzy power-pop sounds blend with a blast straight from the '60s in terms of sheer listenability -- and you're having 100% Fun with Matthew Sweet while the Kinks play in your garage. Hailing from Los Angeles, the guys in the Broken West wrap up all kinds of California imagery while also underscoring a bit of the shadow as well: "Sun down, blood horizon, now it feels all right/ No one feels the darkness down in the valley tonight." Musical novocaine.
Down In The Valley - The Broken West
This clever, humble, and thoroughly enjoyable album from Coconut Records (the nom de rock of actor Jason Schwartzman) came out of absolutely nowhere this year in a stealth digital-only release that spread like wildfire. Normally we can all agree that actors making music spells disaster, but in this case it absolutely spells y-a-y. Schwartzman blends some of the jangly California indie-pop of his previous work with Phantom Planet with his experience in composing film scores for this aural delight. No two tracks alike: the Weezer rock of "Back To You" flips over the lo-fi duet on "Mama" (with Zooey Deschanel?) and the scratchy dabble into Beatles pop with "Easy Girl" is a million miles from the disco beats of the title track or the Franz Ferdinand stomp on "Minding My Own Business." The album is eclectic, stripped of pretension and ready to make you smile.
Back To You - Coconut Records
The completely charming and effortlessly cool Leslie Feist covers a lot of ground on this album, her third of original solo material, in addition to her releases with the Broken Social Scene. Feist is musically adventurous with a sound that is impossible to pin down. Moving easily from intimate songs like "The Park" that aches like a midnight dirge sung lying flat, looking out a darkened window, to the spiritual-gospel handclap community of "Sea Lion Woman," you never know what the next track will bring. The only common thread among the songs is her gorgeously honey-drenched, knowingly sly voice. Feist possesses a welcome imaginative streak that she’s not afraid to reveal on this album. She deserves every ounce of recognition that Apple commercial got her in 2007; anyone who conceives of the idea to do a rainbow-hued dance video clothed in spangles to a song that good gets my respect. I wait in breathless anticipation to see what she does next.
My Moon, My Man - Feist
WE BELONG TO THE STAGGERING EVENING
Ike Reilly Assassination
Call it defiant pre-punk, cranked-up '50s rock'n'roll that slipped past the censors, or just some seriously good music. Ike Reilly writes unflinching rock songs full of bluesy, boozy, humid, rock riffs and intelligent, biting, evocative lyrics that make me want to take off with him through the desert on the run from the cops, the windows down and a knowing glance between us. Ike's not ripping off a halcyon era of memories past like some of the retro-influenced acts today (Brian Setzer, I love you, but I'm talking to you), but rather he feels like an earnest, fierce character who somehow slipped in from a time when the music was rawer, the sex was furtive, and the liquor was bootlegged. This is a fiercely fantastic album that provocatively edged itself into my top ten the first time I listened to it.
Valentine's Day in Juarez - Ike Reilly
And yes, since you asked, my membership in the bloggers guild is currently under review for revocation for not listening to Arcade Fire or Radiohead in 2007. I'll keep you posted.